Back Issues
The Team
Contact us
Volume 4 Issue 3 | March 2009



Original Forum Editorial

The 1/11 Paradox--Rashida Ahmad
The Way Out-Hasan Imam
Weathering the Storm-- Mustafizur Rahman
Can Bangladesh Textile Exports Survive?--Ahsan Mansur
Photo Feature: Live on Fish--Mumit M
How Devolution Can Change Our Politics-- Jyoti Rahman
A Woman's Worth-- Fahmida Khatun
Not Only About Justice-- 8. Shayan S. Khan
Commander-in-Chief-- Syed Ahmed Mortada
Dispatch from 1971-- Ziauddin Choudhury


Forum Home



Syed Ahmed Mortada traces the beginnings of one of the heroes of 1971 -- General Osmany

The legend goes that at M.A.G. Osmany's King's Commission interview for the British Indian army, one of the board members asked: "Do you think you are fit for military with this height?" Prompt came the reply: "If Hitler could jolt the world, why not me?"

Needless to say, Osmany was able to impress the selection committee and was sent to Dehradun Military College as an officer cadet in 1939, after WWII had already started. He joined the Royal Commission in 1940 and became a captain in 1941. He had the distinction of being the youngest major in the British Imperial Army in 1942 at the age of 23. He was selected for Staff College long course in 1947, among many other British and Indian officers. At the same time, he excelled in the senior officer course. He was considered for promotion to the rank of Lt. Colonel in the British army, but it was not implemented as the partition of India had been declared while it was pending.

It may be worthwhile to mention here that Osmany passed his Matriculation examination from Sylhet Government School in the 1st division in 1934, securing the highest marks in English, for which he received the Pretoria Award. As was the tradition in those days for the affluent and aristocratic Muslim families, he got himself admitted to Aligarh Muslim University and graduated in 1938. Osmany was registered for an M.A. in geography but left it to respond to the call of WWII.

He made a mark when he joined the Pakistan army on October 7, 1947 as a Lt. Colonel. His father, who was a civil servant, wanted him to join the Indian Civil Service, which was the most prestigious, prospective, and sought after career in those days.

Osmany chose instead a martial life. That was possibly the only revolt Osmany staged against a family decision. To appease his father, Khan Bahadur Mafizur Rahman, he appeared in (and qualified with flying colours) the Indian Civil Service examination and was selected for the Indian Political Service. But he spurned the luxurious future and continued with the rigorous life of a soldier. That was Osmany.

Acting President of the provincial government of Bangladesh. Syed Nazrul Islam speaking on the day of forming the government at Mujibnagar on April 17, 1971. Col. MAG Osmani is seated on the far right of the podium.

He was a die-hard soldier. Many people do not know that he was initially posted to the Army Supply Corps (ASC). He realised that the core of an army was the infantry, so he decided to be an infantryman. In 1948, Osmany was selected for the Quetta Staff College. He was already a Lt. Colonel then. When he passed out from Quetta Staff College, Osmany opted for the infantry. Since he had no experience of infantry, Osmany was demoted to a major, which he accepted happily and willingly.

As a Major from a Lt. Col., he was posted as Second-in-Command to the then 5th battalion of 14 Punjab Regiment, now called 5 Punjab, which was commanded by Field Marshal Ayub Khan in Azad Kashmir (1949-50). Osmany became a full Colonel in 1956 and retired as a Colonel in 1967.

The sacrifice Osmany made, changing from ASC to Infantry, started paying dividends. He was made CO 1st East Bengal Regiment in Jessore around 1950. That opened the door for him to cultivate his talent, devotion, dexterity, and excellence, inculcating physical fitness, morale, tactics, Bengali nationalism, a sense of pride and superiority among the rank and file of the 1Bengal regiment.

Because of his leadership and farsightedness he became the father figure, not only for the Bengal regiment but also for the Bengali personnel of other services. Osmany was unique, being the first Bengali to become the CO of a Bengal unit formed completely by Bengalis after 1858.

Bengalis were lucky to find an infantry unit formed purely by the Bengalis, as other than the Punjab regiment that was formed entirely by Punjabis, no other province of Pakistan had a unit manned by their own people. The worst was meted out to Sindis, with no regiment at all, and looked down upon, like the Bengalis, as a "non-martial race."

The term non-martial race was used for Bengalis and was coined by a British bureaucrat Macaulay after the first foiled Independence War of India in 1858. This rebellion was staged by sepoys of eastern India, predominantly Bengalis, and was about to crush the British presence in India, but the tables were turned at the last moment as the Punjabi troops brought from Punjab defeated the freedom fighters and recaptured the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.

It is well understood that the colonial masters were furious at the Bengalis who would fight only for a patriotic cause, unlike the Punjabis who were engaged as mercenaries and fought for money even against their own country. Since then, the Bengalis were degraded as a "non-martial race" and were punished not only by stopping their recruitment in the army but also by depriving them of other privileges and preferences.

It was only when Britain got involved in WW2 in August 1914 that the recruitment of Bengalis into the army resumed. During post-Jinnah Pakistan, the Punjabis continued with the legacy of the British, denigrating the Bengalis as a non-martial race.

The Punjabis always considered themselves as a white-coloured martial race. They treated the Bengalis, particularly the Bengal regiments, with a tilt of disdain, not only in cadre service, but also in sports and games. It was General Osmany who enthused the 1 Bengal with such a standard of training and military activities that they proved themselves in every field. Bengal regiments always had an edge in swimming and football but the Punjabis did not consider these as martial sports. Boxing, of course, was a martial sport.

In 1949, 1st East Bengal defeated the 3rd and 8th Punjab regiment in boxing -- knocking out Punjab regiment in eight bouts and defeating them in the remaining three bouts on points. At this, the Punjabis heard the alarm bell and started working on different conspiracies to not raise any more Bengal battalion, and instead to mix the already existing two -- 1 and 2 Bengal.

At the inception of Pakistan there was a tremendous force against the raising of 1 and 2 Bengal but because of Jinnah who did not believe in any martial race theory, that force could not succeed. M. A. Jinnah , the Governor General of Pakistan, took the first salute of 1 East Bengal in its raising parade.

After taking over 1Bengal in Jessore, Osmany got down to business with all his heart and soul. He was waiting for this moment and did not waste any time. He envisioned that soon, the question of mixing the EBR would be lurking so he started to prepare right away. He chalked out a scheme to reach his desired goal by developing professional excellence amongst the troops by a very difficult and rigorous form of training. He prepared them for extreme climatic conditions pertaining to West Pakistan.

He trained them for extreme cold climate by exposing them bare-bodied at the peak of winter here in East Pakistan for prolonged period. He paid full attention to their health, PT, parade, drill, exercises, even games and sports. He engaged himself to develop physical and morale strength of the entire battalion, not a particular company or platoon. Once he achieved his mission of creating the highest standard of physical fitness, Osmany focused his concentration to instill in them with a sense of pride and confidence. He knew that this he could do so by stimulating their patriotism and nationalism.

He introduced Chal Chal Chal of Bengali rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, as the marching song of the Bengal Regiments. He named the regiment the "Bengal Tigers." Not only that, he selected Bratachari dance as the regimental dance for the Tigers. Osmany introduced Rabindranath's Gram Chara Oi Rangamatir Path and Dijendralal Rai's Dhano Dhannay Puspay Bhara with full military band for the Bengal regiment. He triggered an ethos of Bengali nationalism in the mind-set of the officers and other ranks of Bengal Tigers years before. That sprit and enthusiasm of nationalism subsequently found its application in the 1971 Liberation War.

General Osmany was a proud Bengali and was a proud Pakistani before 1971. He is an example of principle, discipline, punctuality, trustworthiness, and was honest to the bone. He was a good orator and a well-dressed person. He never compromised the question of principle. He communicated to Bengali troops in Bengali, to the officers in English, and to the JCO in Urdu.


The Pakistani seniors did not like his Bengali conversation and wanted him to use Urdu, but Osmany did not falter. He explained that Bengali was an accepted national language. Rather, Punjabi officers should avoid using Punjabi with the Punjabi troops as that was only a regional language. This was considered arrogance by the authorities, that cost him his promotion and career. But that made him a bold nationalist leader in the eyes of rank and file of Bengalis, and they were proud of him.

The Punjabi conspiracy was always afoot to stop any further raising of Bengal regiment and also to mix the present two Bengal regiments. In 1957, Khairat Hossain of Rangpur, who was a state minister of defense, sent a written recommendation to Prime Minister Suhrawardy that the number of Bengal regiments be increased to 20. Till then there were only 2 Bengal regiments, the same two raised by Jinnah. The minister presented that Bengalis constituted more than half of the population and were not represented in the army commensurate with their population, which was against the basic principle of democracy.

The file went to the commander-in-chief, General Ayub Khan. Usually, the file should have first gone to the directors concerned and the principal staff officers (PSO). But Ayub intercepted and wrote in his usual bold hand: "In this situation when danger from India to our sovereignty is lurking in the corner, we cannot experiment with questionable material, i.e. the Bangalis, for the army."

Osmany and Wasiuddin were in GHQ then and when they came to know from Khalilur Rahman, about Ayub's comment, they were frustrated and disappointed.

It won't be out of place to relate here that later in the 1965 war against India, 1 East Bengal defended Ayu's motherland -- the Bedian sector of Pakistan more valiantly than any regiment of Punjab. 1 Bengal was awarded with 17 gallantry decorations, the highest number of awards received by a single battalion in the 1965 war.

After his tenure with the regiment, Osmany was placed in GHQ. The high command of the Pakistani army decided to implement their scheme of mixing the Bengal regiments. Osmany voiced his rejection vehemently. Other junior Bengali officers joined him but they were only a few. The only heavyweight was Lt. Gen. Khawja Wasiuddin whose support had the desired effect.

The army high command agreed to put the "non-martial Bengalis" on military test and trial, in which 1 E Bengal had to go through an almost inhumanly difficult military exercise involving survival for three days and three nights with one blanket and one meal a day, in the extreme cold weather of Punjab. It also included a march carrying on the back of the soldiers all the heavy weapons of an infantry battalion for 19 miles across the mountains of Jhelum over-night in total darkness. These were just two of the many such tests for a month.

Maj. Gen. K. M Shaikh was in command of the entire tests. Shaikh was an extremely hard taskmaster, cruel and vindictive at times, but he was also an honest upright soldier. After the ordeal for a month, the result was published.

It was incredible, unbelievable. General Shaikh congratulated the battalion and wished that every battalion of Pakistan army were of such superb military ability.

What damaged the scheme of GHQ totally was the last part of the report: "I have no doubt in my mind as to how such superb standard was achieved by these Bengali soldiers. It is because they are unmixed and each soldier considers himself an ambassador of East Pakistan. If they are mixed, this feeling will be gone and the loser will be Pakistan army."

By then the sentiment of East Pakistanis was gaining momentum and the demand for raising the representation of Bengalis in the army became insurmountable in the 1960s. The nervous GHQ finally yielded to raise the number of Bengali battalions to eight.

It was Osmany who was accredited with these successes and achievements, having laid the foundation for this spirit of self-sacrifice and exemplary standard of physical fitness and military excellence. That cost him dearly in terms of his career, but Osmany was firm and determined. Ayub offered him lucrative civilian positions after his retirement but Osmany turned down all the offers as he did not find it befitting to receive any favour from the authority that had punished him for his principles and high code of conduct.

At the invitation of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Osmany formally joined Awami League on July 7, 1970. He had no ambition of becoming a politician, but after his experience during the course of his military service, and seeing the disparity, the discrimination, the treatment of Bengalis as second class citizens and the rule over East Pakistan like a client state -- Osmany could not remain a silent spectator. The tiger roared. He roared before for Bengal regiment, once again he roared for the Bengalis.

In 1970 he was elected a member of parliament from Sylhet with a huge margin. The rest is history. When Osmany had approached Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 25 and pleaded with him to flee, his reply to Osmany was: "No. The amount of their destruction and torture will be more. Also they will propagate negative propaganda against us. Moreover, the mental strength of the nation will be more and based on that the national unity will become stronger if they kill me. But you have to lead the war. The country needs you."

Osmany became the de facto supreme commander of armed forces at that moment. Osmany left Bangabandhu and went underground. In the meanttime after arresting Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the main target of Pakistan army was Osmany. A commando company attacked the house of his brother at Banani and shot and bayoneted his two dogs but did not find him. They also went to his Dhanmondi residence. Osmany hid himself in a vacant house at New Eskaton from March 25-29. The Pakistan army searched that area but they did not bother to enter a vacant house. How he escaped from New Eskaton on the night of March 29, shaving his famous moustache, is another hair-raising story. The government in exile on April 12 offered Osmany to be the commander in chief of the liberation forces and he formally took over on April 17.

Osmany continued as supreme commander of liberation forces during the war of independence and also as the chief of armed forces in sovereign Bangladesh. Bangladesh promoted Osmany to full general on December 16.

Lt. Gen. Mir Shawkat Ali has rightly articulated: "After independence, the sector commanders were crowned with Bir Uttam. But the person who led the sector commanders remained uncrowned. The man who was the supreme commander, who guided us with spontaneous motivation, was deprived of any decoration, adulation or title. It was a great shame, a great injustice. This country must learn to give correct reward to correct people."

Whether the nation or the government recognised the contribution of General Osmany was another matter, but the people of the newly sovereign state duly saluted Osmany by conferring on him the title of Bango Bir. That was the solace with which he died.

Syed Ahmed Mortada is a freelance contributor.

© thedailystar.net, 2009. All Rights Reserved